The “DEFCON” (defense condition) system is a threat-display, now, but during the early cold war it was important.

In fact, it turns out, NORAD and the US Air Force’s strike forces were not correctly deployed, and were susceptible to a first strike. That doesn’t mean, as we’d expect it would, that Curtis Le May would get fired from his job – oh, no, it meant that Curtis Le May was ready to launch a civilization-killing attack on his own recognizance, as soon as it looked like a Soviet attack was coming. Talk about MAD: Le May’s stated plan was that if he got sufficiently worried, the US would launch a first strike. Meanwhile, the US talked a good game about how the nukes were under political control, and a “deranged general” scenario could not happen. We don’t need to dwell on that, because we survived that particular speed-bump – but it’s illustrative of the way that building and having weapons of mass destruction inevitably sucks a government into lying to its own people – you can’t build things like that without trying to cover up the insane crime you’re committing.

Anyhow, the US has its DEFCON, which no longer means the bombers are in the air, loaded with nukes, and flying a big circle up in the arctic. It probably means that the commanders of the ballistic missile subs, who have a great deal of leeway over launch decisions and targeting, are cruising toward good launching positions, and (probably) diving deep and taking evasive courses to throw off any satellites that may be tracking them. The US hasn’t gone to DEFCON 3 very often: 9/11, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Matsu/Quemoy incident, perhaps a few other things we don’t know about. It doesn’t change things much, except there’s one significant bit: if a missile launch commander is at DEFCON 2 and gets a launch order, they are much more likely to carry it out than if they got it on a sunny day when they weren’t on alert. It’s a mistake magnifier.


Putin puts Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert as fighting in Ukraine continues

They probably were, already. Putin’s just posturing. But it’s more than posturing: its Russia declaring it is angry that it was not granted the leeway that nuclear superpowers expect to be granted.

This whole situation is what happens when we put the worst examples of humanity in positions of power.

I still don’t think the chance of a general nuclear exchange is higher than a couple of percentage points. It’s not zero, though. It should be zero. It’s insane that humanity lives under the threat of self-murder, with the decision in the hands of old farts who are profoundly out of touch with the world the rest of us live in. They walk in marble halls and have people salute them and ratify their self-importance; they are treated as though they can do anything they want. It’s ridiculous that we expect such weak, old, coots to be humane. I expect the US will respond by going to DEFCON 2.


  1. says

    Thank you so much for this. I’ve needed someone I trust to know what the fuck they’re talking about to address this escalation in nuclear rhetoric and whether it means an escalation in nuclear risk (and to what extent).

    I have a lot of random knowledge, and I am no longer surprised when a speculation of mine proves accurate, but I am self-aware enough to know that human insight + background knowledge can make you right on occasion but it doesn’t make you **reliable**. For that reason I try to identify when I’m speaking about a topic where I have no expertise.

    I recognize that you’re lacking some important data (state of mind of Putin, for instance) that would make your assessments more accurate, but at least you’re talking about an area in which you have some level of expertise — more than me at any rate.

    Anything else you write on the topic will be greedily consumed by me: this shit is too important, and I’m pretty scared right now.

    For instance, do you think it’s possible that Putin would use one of the “small” so-called “tactical” nukes on Ukrainian soil as sort of an implied-threat to try to get NATO to back off? (All the while claiming he “had to” use it against some “Nazis” in Ukraine, whom he would of course accuse of committing war crimes and assert were unstoppable without nukes.)

    And if he did do that, would NATO be more willing or less willing to interfere? (My expectation is more willing, but I can’t tell if that’s my hope talking.)

    I also thought that nuclear escalation was a low but non-zero risk, though I think that’s really more a combination of my hopes and fears than anything I actually know about the world and Russia and Putin and nukes. I assume as new information comes in your estimate of the risk would change with the data, but that some data simply wouldn’t be sufficient to change your estimate (while it might very well change my fears or hopes quite drastically). Do let us know if it does.

    Thanks again,


  2. says

    For instance, do you think it’s possible that Putin would use one of the “small” so-called “tactical” nukes on Ukrainian soil as sort of an implied-threat to try to get NATO to back off?

    Zero chance.

    This is Putin’s play to get NATO to back off. And grab some oil wells and black sea access, etc. He does not want a nuclear war, he’s announcing that to show how serious he is. The US will have to respond by raising DEFCON but this is all a big dance – a dance of “lets avoid a nuclear war over this” and apparently there is now diplomacy taking place now that everyone has shown how serious they are.

  3. says

    The problem with the idea of using even a small nuke is that the planet is literally covered with nuclear explosion detectors and if someone sees a detonation things could get very hinky indeed. It’s like shooting a gun around a cop – it’s dangerous even if you’re a cop.

    Also: nuclear weapons are ridiculously horrible. People say “dead is dead” but there is something soul-changing about nuclear war. If you haven’t read Hershey’s Hiroshima that’s pretty much the quintessential source. Nuclear weapons make peaceniks. It makes total sense to me because, whichever side of it you’re on “holy shit that’s what politicians are willing to do to us?!” is the only thing a person can think.

    No president or dictator could politically survive allowing a nuke to be used on their nation’s people or troops without responding in kind. And since they’re all a bunch of cowards who love power more than anyone else’s life, that’s what they’d do.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    CD @1:

    (state of mind of Putin, for instance)

    You put the most important single thing, IMO, in brackets. I think we know the following things about him;

    He despises the West (with at least some justification)
    He doesn’t give a shit about his own people
    He lies even more transparently and easily than Trump did
    He’s taken calculated risks in the past, which have generally turned out OK for him

    This particular risk doesn’t seem to be going his way, either as regards Ukraine, or NATO’s response. Tyrants who fuck up generally don’t last long. What does he do if he feels his grasp on power slipping?

  5. camotim says

    The question is who went to high alert status. Russia or biden. The US should not do anything, including sanctions, top help ukraine. After its almost 8 years of murdering ethnic Russians in the Dobass Region it deserves much more than President Putin has caused it to sustain. For an American NeoCon, as myself, to oppose US military interventio is a veyr rare moment. But biden is incapable of leading this nation in any war. He proved that he is not a CINC, but a SINK, on 26 AUG 21. Then he followed what he was taught by that White Trash obama on 12 SEP 21. Durijng the error, and now during the error of biden, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, is Leader of the Free Worrld. Neither that White Tash or CHOMO are leaders of freedom.

  6. witm says

    To add to Rob @4, there was an interesting article in the Norwegian news specifically addressing the point of Putin’s mindset. One of the localish Russia analysts (they’ve interviewed all of them at one point or another recently) noted that since Covid hit, Putin has mostly been in isolation with his Yes-men. That combined with a generally more emotional front seems to imply that something has changed from the person we have been used to observing.

    The expert made the following specific:
    1. He seems less tied to reality than before.
    2. He’s lashing out at hardline supporters in a way he hasn’t before.
    3. He’s more overtly emotional than before.

    My conclusion: Fuck. Early dementia? Late legacyitis? All bad. He should probably be in a home for retired delusional KGB agents and 24/7 care, not the Kreml.

  7. says

    Neither that White Tash or CHOMO are leaders of freedom.

    I don’t think “freedom” has anything to do with how this sort of situation (waves vaguely at Europe) gets resolved. The US is going to either stumble around pretending it’s not the planetary hegemon, or accept that it is – and neither of those end-points are going to move humanity in a good direction. I’m not even sure what you mean by “freedom.” Usually in these contexts it means “I can bomb people with impunity.”

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    camotim @6:

    For an American NeoCon, as myself

    I think most American NeoCons have a much better grasp of English than this.

Leave a Reply